Despite an excess of starting pitching candidates, the Cardinals should continue to roll with a five-man rotation.
A couple weeks ago, Brett Butz over at KangarooCourtSTL.com argued that the St. Louis Cardinals should buck convention this season and implement a six-man starting rotation. His reasoning appears to be fairly straightforward. Most importantly, the Cardinals should have seven capable major league options in Mike Leake, Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright and Luke Weaver. Furthermore, given the collective combination of youth and injury issues, a six-man staff might ease some innings concerns. Plus, the extra rest could have the added effect of keeping the starters fresh later into the season. On the surface, Butz’s proposal seems sensible.
Still, as we’ll see, it makes more sense for the Cardinals to maintain the standard five-man crew.
Who are the five? Six?
Before we establish the rationale behind each suggestion, we should first determine who our five, and potentially sixth, starters would be. Butz lays out the seven aforementioned names, who are clearly the strongest candidates, though his conclusion that they form the strongest rotation in the National League is questionable at best. He looks at each of their career numbers, but that won’t help us much in terms of 2017, so let’s look at each pitcher on a case-by-case basis.
Martinez is the obvious ace of the staff, especially after inking a brand-new five-year, $51 million extension. Reyes is MLB.com’s number one pitching prospect, and after a sterling debut season that included a brief string of starts, he’s ready for his first full season of starting in the bigs. Wainwright had a rough go in his return from an Achilles tendon rupture, but there’s no doubt he’ll have a rotation spot as he aims to bounce back to semi-ace form.
This is where things get a little tougher. Lynn just missed all of 2016 after Tommy John surgery, but in the four seasons prior, he posted earned run averages between 2.74 and 3.97 while pitching at least 175.1 innings each year. While it would be foolish to expect the same coming off major surgery, especially early on, Mr. Reliable deserves a chance to start. He’s a more than solid contributor when healthy, and the Cardinals need to find out if he can get back to that level.
Butz is definitely too harsh on Leake. Yes, he’s making quite a bit of money and yes, he didn’t live up to expectations in year one of the contract. But there are plenty of reasons to believe he’ll rebound in 2017. His walk rate (4.0 percent) was actually the lowest of his career, while his strikeout rate (16.5 percent) was one of the highest. He may have just been unlucky, allowing by far the highest batting average on balls in play of his career (.318) despite no noticeable spike in hard hit percentage allowed (just 0.8 percent above his career mark). Leake’s strand rate was uncharacteristically low at 65.6 percent; more than likely, it’ll creep back towards the low 70s. All of this explains why despite a career-high 4.69 ERA, Leake actually posted a career-low 3.83 fielding independent pitching. Plus, he’s a workhorse, and that’s valuable. At age 29 and due $15 million this season, Leake will be in the rotation.
Those are the five that I expect to absolutely be in the rotation. That brings us to Wacha, Weaver and Butz’s suggestion.
Can Wacha or Weaver deliver enough Ws?
Butz’s appraisal of Wacha is a bit confusing. He first calls Wacha a quality starter, then mentions that Wacha “has had recurring issues with his scapula in his throwing shoulder and has not looked like the future ace in almost two years.” This is the plainest case where the career numbers are deceptive. Butz is correct that Wacha has looked lost for quite a while now. Dating back to September 2015, he’s posted a staggering 5.50 ERA and 1.52 walks plus hits per inning pitched. The underlying stats actually paint him in a somewhat positive light–he somehow managed to pull 1.9 FanGraph wins above replacement last year–but he’s been too horrific for too long now to lean back on those. The reality is that he has to prove he’s still a major league pitcher, much less a starter.
Weaver is a different story. Still technically a prospect–MLB.com’s 68th-best–he, like Reyes, had his cup of coffee last summer. Unlike Reyes, Weaver crashed hard, allowing 17 runs over his last 5.1 innings and cratering his confidence. In terms of 2017 starting outlook only, Weaver’s probably isn’t very strong. In his chat on January 27, Keith Law called Weaver a “two-pitch guy who lacks plane on the fastball.” Can he be a decent member of the rotation as soon as 2017? Maybe, or he wouldn’t be that highly ranked of a prospect. He’s not better than any of the above five, though, and is at best St. Louis’s sixth option.
Giving starts to a sixth guy means taking away starts from everyone else.
Games are finite. The Cardinals, like every other team, get 162 of them to show that they deserve more. If they can’t, they go home. Just doing some simple math, if you split 162 starts among six pitchers, each pitcher gets 27 starts. Carlos Martinez started 31 games last year. Do you really want to take away four starts from your ace when you just missed the playoffs by one game? Would you rather give the ball to a guy who you hope will give you a 4.00 ERA or the guy who gives you six innings of two-run ball night in and night out?
Butz references the Chicago Cubs starting Mark Montgomery for about a month towards the tail end of last season. Before he made the first of those five starts, however, the Cubs were 12 games up in the National League Central and just about had home field wrapped up. The Cardinals, on the other hand, are in a different situation. They’re fighting just to make the playoffs, and they need every win they can get. St. Louis doesn’t have the luxury of going to a six-man rotation in order to rest everybody else. A sixth man sounds great in theory, but the Cardinals have to consider that those are starts that better pitchers could be making.
Putting six in the rotation affects the rest of the roster.
Similarly, rotation decisions aren’t made in a vacuum. Allocating a spot towards an extra starter means skimping elsewhere on the 25-man roster. That could mean playing a man short in one of two areas: the bullpen or the bench. Six starters to go along with eight position player starters leaves 11 roster spots. That could mean eight relievers and three on the bench, seven and four or six and five. On one hand, you could go with Carson Kelly as the backup catcher, Jedd Gyorko as the backup infielder and Tommy Pham as the backup outfielder. But wouldn’t it be nice to have the extra Greg Garcia, Matt Adams or Jose Martinez off the bench? We know manager Mike Matheny likes having options at his disposal. That would take away from the bullpen depth, and given the bullpen issues last season, that might not be so smart. An extra man in the rotation inherently reduces the quality of the rotation. That means the bullpen has to work harder and wears out quicker, reducing the quality of the bullpen. The adverse effects on the roster aren’t worth the exploration of a six-man staff.
So what to do with Wacha and Weaver?
The Cardinals have a lot invested in both Wacha and Weaver. Wacha is still just 25, and St. Louis has him under control for the next three seasons. It’s hard to say that St. Louis should relegate him to the bullpen while he still has plenty of talent and could still be part of its future plans. At the same time, he has to get back on track, and that starts with getting his confidence back. I’m not sure sending him back to the minors (like the Cardinals did with Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong at points last season) will do him any good. Instead, I’d let him work on things in low-leverage relief situations with the big club, potentially as a multi-inning pitcher. Then, the Cardinals could slowly build him back up into a reliable option, much like they did with the seemingly-broken Trevor Rosenthal at the end of 2016.
Weaver, on the other hand, should continue to start in Triple-A. Despite Law’s negative stance, the Cardinals should continue to groom him as a starter. Another potential choice could be to break him in as a reliever (see: Martinez and Wainwright). That doesn’t have to be the immediate plan, however, unless the bullpen completely breaks down.
In both cases, not starting right out of the gate doesn’t preclude either pitcher from being a starting option in 2017. As the Cardinals well know, starting pitching depth disappears quickly. At best, they have five starters stay healthy while Wacha and Weaver can contribute elsewhere. At worst, they have quality sixth and seventh options, at least relative to most teams in the league.
How does the rotation look?
The Cardinals have a budding ace in Martinez, a promising package of talent in Reyes, a bounceback candidate in Wainwright, a typically solid contributor Lynn and an innings eater in Leake. That’s a good rotation! It won’t be as good as 2015’s record-setting rotation, nor will it be as inconsistent as last year’s. Wacha and Weaver simply aren’t good enough right now to add a spot to the rotation for either. That’s not a knock on them, but a credit to the Cards’ rotation depth. Instead, St. Louis will retain its flexibility both in the bullpen and on the bench. It’ll also have two quality options on deck whenever it inevitably needs a spot start (to assuage workload concerns) or a long-term replacement (due to injury or ineffectiveness). Sticking with a five-man rotation is the smart move for St. Louis as we approach spring.
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